You Can Only Change What You Can See

There is an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and George pitch their show idea to TV executives. When they are asked what the show is about, George exclaims, “Nothing. The show is about absolutely nothing.” When speaking to someone in the lean manufacturing camp, you get this same impression. If you ask: “How do I schedule my factory more efficiently?” They will answer: “When the box is empty, you fill it up.” It is a theory based on the scheduling of one bottleneck or pacemaker in a factory versus running many lines separately with independent bottlenecks; a practice of knowing there will be complications and using them to your advantage rather than planning for optimal circumstances.
Lean planning is all about visualizing and reacting but when your manufacturing plants are dotting the global landscape from Georgia to Guangzhou, how can executives see what is going on? C-level executives swimming in those turbulent waters of global manufacturing face three distinct challenges in the management of a lean manufacturing facility. First, the inability or difficulty in seeing the current production status. Second, the inability or difficulty of measuring performance on the shop floor and third, the inability or difficulty improving overall execution. Lean manufacturing is a quiet revolution taking on these challenges and SAP xLPO is standing guard as it partners with SAP xApp Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence (SAP xMII) – a visual dashboard of the factory – and SAP ERP.
While executives are trying to make high level decisions, SAP xLPO is the acting brains of the operation, assessing orders, identifying the status of the manufacturing lines in use and verifying/updating the scheduling (or re-scheduling) of the factory by utilizing lean algorithms. SAP ERP is the backbone, tying financial data into the overall solution, and SAP xMII is the eyes, the visual landscape which empowers users to make informed decisions about all things related to the plant. Underneath, SAP Composite Application Framework supports model-driven application composition, allowing applications to be built with much less custom programming. The collaboration framework empowers a global manufacturing facility to relate any service or object of SAP NetWeaver components with any business object. Objects such as task, document, and meeting are all accessible within the object access layer. Finally, everyone in the plant is on the same page.

Excel dethroned

Excel has a seven out of 10 stranglehold on much of the manufacturing world, according to Sami Cassis, product manager for SAP xLPO. So, SAP xLPO had to be spot on and it had to be user friendly. Cassis states, “You are not talking about developing software for an IT guy to use. You are talking about developing software that someone on the shop floor is going to use, so give them what they want or it isn’t going to work.”
Prior to the development of SAP xLPO, Cassis’ team interviewed 20 planners who specialize in lean manufacturing and in corporate pacemaker management. Some of these consultants were from the Factory Logic team, the product acquisition on top of which SAP xLPO is built. Others were from JCI, a giant in the car manufacturing world.
Jim Pell, a former JCI employee, started by designing the ideal lean process model for JCI manually, without the use of a computer. When the model was proven and its value assessed, the team embarked on a project to systematize that process. The SAP xLPO team gained tremendous insight on how a lean manufacturing system could be systematized through this process. The key findings gained from speaking with this group were focused around visualization, which is key to the success of a lean plant. You have to see what is going on – right at this exact moment, across the factory, in order to react in a lean environment.
Cassis states that the other needs highlighted by the planners his team interviewed include a product that is easy and effective to use. Second they need a system whose logic is transparent, so the planners should be able to look at the schedule of the system and it should intuitively make sense to them. Finally, if they need to override the system, because they know something that the system does not, it should be easy to do it without requiring an act of God or half a day of IT resources.
Cassis, who was on board with Factory Logic prior to developing SAP xLPO, came away from these discussions with a clear view of lean consultants’ desires and an action plan. The planners told Cassis: “I control three things, I control time – I can add and remove time, I can work on Saturday if I want to. I control people – I can put more people on a line to make it run faster. I control materials – I can decide to build more or build less for whatever reason I so choose. I control these things. I am the planner. Now, I want to be able to see all those things on one screen and don’t want to go from screen to screen. I want to be able to change any one of those things click one button and see the impact it has on my plan, schedule and customer service levels and inventories and then I want to be able to change it back again and see things again.”
Given that these planners were used to going into factories running multi-million dollar manufacturing plants with Excel, Cassis and his team listened and executed with that vision in mind. “However ugly Excel can be, however un-intuitive, everything can be on one screen and customers who use Excel know where everything is because they laid it out and developed the macros and for that reason they like it. And so, we had to develop SAP xLPO like that for them,” Cassis says.
Vivek Bapat, senior director of solution marketing for manufacturing, SAP, says, “What we are trying to do for our customers is help them bridge the gap between their enterprise system and the shop floor.”

Everyone needs a pacemaker

Ripping out and overhauling IT systems is not an option in the plant world, because if you are ripping out a system, you are affecting live production. The parts still have to roll off the end of the line no matter how many servers you are installing or what software is getting an update. So somehow you have to build on top of what already exists, and the problem in doing that is the lack of a unifying architecture.
In the end, savings is really what it is all about. IT teams will be thrilled when implementing SAP xLPO, as the program really only needs to know the specifics/data of the pacemaker (bottleneck) which accounts for only about 10 percent of what is normally required to setup a system.
With SAP xLPO, Cassis says, “It takes IT folks months to implement a system as compared with a lot longer than with a conventional manufacturing system; the training mathematical modeling, optimization and data accuracy. That’s what C-level execs like – quick time to benefit.”
For the end user, the most complex execution inside the factory is rescheduling production. It means things have changed – there are new orders, some cancellations, and the folks on the floor need to change what they are going to build. You can’t be building the same product if your demand has changed and/or quality problems are showing up at the end of the line. So you need to readjust your production plan and schedule. In SAP xLPO, changes can be viewed to see how they will effect scheduling before they are put into production. And that means the guys on the shop floor aren’t working off an outdated build schedule.
For years the lean purists said: “If you can produce a piece of software which adheres to lean philosophies and assists in the running of multi-global site manufacturing so we can scale and be lean, we’re interested.” SAP xLPO is here, lean purists, shining a whole new light on your factory.

Ian Alexander
Ian Alexander